With just a few weeks to go before Taiwan's January 2024 presidential election, the opposition is starting in scattered order. The two main forces that make up the party – the Kuomintang and the Taiwanese People's Party (TPP) – registered their candidacies separately on Friday (24 November) and therefore failed to form an alliance with the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has been in power for eight years. After two terms, outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen cannot stand for re-election.
The Kuomintang, led by Hou Yu-ih, and the TPP led by Ko Wen-je, parties in favour of an easing of relations with Beijing, will therefore stand separately. A division that could benefit the candidate of the ruling power: William Lai, current vice-president of Taiwan.
This single-round presidential election will see three candidates face off in January 2024, in a context of growing tensions between Washington and Beijing, with China fiercely hostile to the power on the island. Jean-Pierre Cabestan, specialist in the contemporary Chinese world, researcher at the Asia Centre in Paris, and author of "Tomorrow China: War or Peace?" (Gallimard, 2021), returns for France 24 on the stakes of a high-risk election.
France 24: In the context of a single-round election, does an opposition divided between several candidates still have a chance of winning?
Jean-Pierre Cabestan: The division of the opposition is in favour of the candidacy of William Laï and Hsiao Bi-khim (his running mate, editor's note). But the chips aren't down yet. Polls indicate that the three candidates are quite close, especially those of William Lai and Ko Wen-je, the former mayor of Taipei. The latter, according to some polls, is even in the lead. But beware, as the latest poll was conducted before the break-up of the alliance, which was never really concluded, between the Kuomintang and the Taiwanese People's Party. It's going to be a close election, and everything can still change. The opposition still has a chance, even if it is scattered.
What has been China's reaction to this fracture in the opposition?
Beijing did not take kindly to this division, as well as the candidacy of William Lai and Hsiao Bi-khim. The Chinese government considers them to be separatists, even more so than outgoing President Tsai Ing-wen. William Lai's candidacy is seen by Beijing as the one that is most likely to increase tensions in the Taiwan Strait, or even provoke a conflict. With this speech, Beijing is trying to put pressure on Taiwanese voters to vote for moderate candidates who accept the principle of 'One China'.
I also believe that Beijing pressured Terry Gou (who was a fourth candidate) to withdraw from the race before the nominations closed on November 24. I think he was under various pressures in China, where he has a million employees. He was expected to come fourth in the race, with 7 to 8 percent of the vote, but his candidacy further reduced the chances of the opposition – whether the Kuomintang or the TPP – winning in this battle.
Should we see in the fracture of the opposition a potential loss of influence by China on Taiwanese politics?
China has, in fact, never had much influence on the political game in Taiwan. That's his big problem. Despite Beijing's pressure and intimidation, Taiwanese identity continues to consolidate. Three-quarters of Taiwanese believe they are Taiwanese, not Chinese. Identification with Taiwan's democracy, which is already strong, has grown. And what recently happened in Hong Kong has contributed to reinforcing this distance, even this mistrust, towards the People's Republic of China. In Taiwan, there are very few supporters of unification with China.
Will rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the rivalry between Washington and Beijing guide the vote of Taiwanese voters on January 13, 2024?
I'm not so sure. This is the paradox of this election. These issues are obviously not absent from the campaign. Washington remains very much in the background and lets democracy play its game. This prompts candidates to focus on domestic issues. Pressure from Beijing, on the other hand, may lead voters to err on the side of caution and therefore vote for opposition candidates. Taiwan has also had a Democratic Progressive Party-led administration for eight years, and a Democratic Progressive Party-dominated parliament. A lot of people want change. The reasons are diverse: domestic problems, an economy that is not in good shape, a pension reform that has been poorly received, a loss of purchasing power, problems in the health system... And voters are divided on the best candidate who could improve the domestic situation.
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Another important point is that the parliamentary elections take place on the same day as the presidential election. And what is virtually certain is that the parliament will come under the control of the opposition, mainly the Kuomintang and the Taiwan People's Party. It will therefore be more difficult for William Lai, if he is elected head of the island, to lead the country. This would take us back to the situation that prevailed between 2000 and 2008 when Chen Shui-bian was president. That being said, the system is mainly presidential, so there will be no 'cohabitation' but a more recalcitrant Parliament with which it will be necessary to negotiate to pass certain laws.
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